Monday, 12 February 2007

Un/Welcome in Washington

I arrived in Washington, DC, yesterday evening (after speaking at the memorial for my dear departed friend Eric Weinberger Saturday in Boston, which made the trip to the East Coast not a complete waste) to what I can only describe as a mixed welcome.

At the downtown D.C. hostel, the person at reception did an incredulous double take when I showed my Hostelling International life membership card. “That isn’t really you , is it? You’re Edward Hasbrouck? The Practical Nomad? Really?” After trying to deny it, I admitted that I am, indeed, myself, and we chatted about books and travel. In addition to his job at the hostel, he works at the ADC Map & Travel Center , which has been around for years but has changed names and expanded its stock of books (including mine) as well as maps. With so many independent travel bookstores going out of business, it’s a delight to visit one that seems to be going strong.

I got the opposite reception today. After a night’s sleep, I went out past the Pentagon to Alexandria, VA, this morning to the “Aviation Security Summit” organized by World Research Group, Inc. — only to be ordered to leave at the first coffee break!

The organizers of this conference had mailed me an invitation, addressed to “Edward Hasbrouck, Author, The Practical Nomad.” I submitted the same information identifying myself as an author in order to download more information. They followed up with a phone call from one of their salespeople, who listened to my voicemail — again identifying my profession — before leaving me messages urging me to attend.

It was expensive, and there was no obvious way to request a press pass. But I decided it would be worth the US$1795 price (for anyone other than airport and government employees, who could get in for only $495) to hear from the horses’ mouths, including conference chair Rafi Ron , what’s being planned in airport “security”. I read the brochure closely, and noticed that one, but only one, of the sessions was identified as being an “airport only … closed forum…. Bring … your airport ID to ensure admission into this exclusive session.” The clear implication was that the rest of the two-day conference would be open to anyone paying the (steep) price of admission. There wasn’t even a clause in the fine print like “we reserve the right to refuse admission”.

I registered — again, as “Edward Hasbrouck, Author, The Practical Nomad” — and paid, in full, in advance. My registration was confirmed by e-mail; when the conference venue was changed, I was notified both by phone and by e-mail.

So it should have come as no surprise to anyone that I showed up, and that I’m an author. During breakfast, one of the airport security directors (from Dulles Airport, ironically given my previous experiences there) politely asked about my badge and profession. I explained, and we chatted. He was polite, and seemed quite happy to talk.

During the first session, unbeknownst to me until later, a Wired News reporter — who like me had clearly identified himself at every step, and unlike me had been promised a press pass — showed up and was turned away without ever being allowed into the room.

At the first coffee break, two hours into the morning, conference organizer Pamela Masselli of World Research Group called me out into the hall, One of the speakers, she said, had told her they would not “feel comfortable” giving the presentation they had prepared, containing such “sensitive” content, with a (gasp?) “author” in the audience.

So what did she want me to do about that? She proposed that I go out in the hall during this particular talk — and, I presume, any of the other talks by speakers who might object to my presence, which would probably lead to my paying $1795 to spend two days pacing the halls.

I told her this was unacceptable: I had paid to attend all of the conference except the portion advertised as “airports only”. If I wasn’t to be allowed to do so, I would be owed my money back.

Ms. Maselli did agree, with apparent surprise but without argument, to refund the registration fee I had paid, if I left immediately. So I did, since otherwise she would presumably have had the authority as the tenant renting the room to order me evicted and force me to sue to get my money back. She admitted without hesitation that (1) they had invited me as an author, (2) they had accepted my registration as an author, (3) they had said nothing in any of the conference literature to indicate that the conference wouldn’t be open to all paid attendees, or that they reserved any right to revoke registrations, and (4) that I had acted entirely properly, openly, in good faith, and in reliance on their written communications. “I feel terrible. I’ve never had to do this” [expel someone from a conference], she said.

Nevertheless, she said that “Our speakers are our conferences, and if they aren’t willing to speak we have no conference. So we have to keep them happy.” I pointed out that if it is worth it to them not to have me there, they and not I should be the ones to bear that cost. She was noncommittal as to whether they would reimburse my expenses for airfare from San Francisco, accommodations, and so forth, much less the value of several days of wasted time. I’ll submit receipts, at least for the major out-of-pocket costs, and let you know what happens.

More at on what this says about airport security.

[Update: World Research Group refunded my conference registration fee. Eventually, they reimbursed me for my airfare and hotel expenses, but not for the value of my time.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 12 February 2007, 20:04 ( 8:04 PM)

What a bunch of morons. I too have faced this dilemma as a journalist on several occasions. It's rarely worth arguing because most flacks won't back down. At least you got your registration fee back. Good luck on getting your other expenses covered.

Posted by: TwoCrabs, 16 February 2007, 03:53 ( 3:53 AM)

Whoa... maybe they (speakers or conference organizers) are afraid you will share the information and your many blog readers will take your advice.

Definitely seems like you deserve a full re-inbursement, let alone compensation for your time.

For such important information even the $495 seems like a steep price, let alone your $1795 as an author the organized heavily pursued as an audience.

Good luck, and do keep us posted

Posted by: L, 17 February 2007, 19:04 ( 7:04 PM)

I'm curious....who was the speaker and what was the title of the talk she proposed you sit out from?

Posted by: Chris, 4 August 2007, 20:13 ( 8:13 PM)
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